California pledged to achieve 100% clean energy. That was the easy part

Source: By Sammy Roth, Los Angeles Times • Posted: Monday, February 15, 2021

In the seven years I’ve been reporting on energy and climate change, California has come a long way.

When I started, state law mandated 33% renewable energy by 2020; utility companies hit that goal two years early and have since been tasked with reaching 60% renewables by 2030 and 100% carbon-free by midcentury. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently ordered an end to the sale of gasoline-fueled cars by 2035. Dozens of cities are trying to phase out gas heating and cooking in new buildings.

Like them or hate them, those are major steps to slash emissions. But just as important are all the steps California has yet to take.

I wrote about some of those this week, in a story that explores the tricky path to 100% clean energy. The focus is a proposed undersea transmission line that would bring offshore wind power to Los Angeles, and why state officials haven’t shown much interest — even though the undersea cable could help shut down gas-fired power plants and reduce the risk of blackouts.

“We’re very frustrated with the lack of serious planning for offshore wind in California,” said Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Assn., an industry trade group. “We’re just banging our head against the wall.”

I’d encourage you to read my story, but the key takeaway is this: Just because California has committed to 100% clean energy doesn’t mean it will be easy, or that officials are doing everything that needs to be done to make it happen.

Let’s break that down a little bit.

Much of the state’s climate progress thus far has been enabled by increasingly low-cost solar and wind power. But as you may be aware, the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow 24 hours a day. Sooner or later, we’ll need clean energy sources that can fill in the gaps — and after two evenings of rolling blackouts last summer, it’s looking more like sooner than later.

This isn’t a newly discovered problem. I wrote about it back in 2015, explaining that in the view of some experts, a bill to increase the state’s renewable energy mandate “doesn’t do enough to promote clean energy sources that can generate electricity around the clock.” Still, even critics were confident California would “eventually diversify its clean energy sources.”

Half a decade later, that mostly hasn’t happened.

State officials are finally compelling utilities to invest in lithium-ion batteries that can store solar power for use after dark. That should help avert blackouts, at least to an extent. But in the meantime, Newsom’s administration is scrambling to keep the lights on this summer, in part by extending the shutdown deadline for four fossil-fueled power plants in Southern California. And the Public Utilities Commission is slated to vote today on a proposal that critics say would offer an additional lifeline to gas plants.

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What California isn’t doing is building offshore wind turbines that keep spinning after sundown. Or, for the most part, geothermal plants that churn out clean electricity around the clock. Or energy storage facilities that bank large amounts of power for extended periods without sun or wind. Or new transmission lines that connect renewable energy facilities with power-hungry cities.

Major infrastructure projects aren’t the only solution. State officials could also go big on small-scale clean energy options such as rooftop solar, residential battery systems and “demand response” programs that pay people to use less electricity. As I wrote last month, those technologies could reduce the cost of fighting climate change while also helping families keep the lights on.

Greater cooperation with other Western states is another alternative. Wyoming is blessed with some of the nation’s strongest and most consistent onshore winds, and a regional energy market could make it easier for California to tap that out-of-state supply.


Electric transmission towers and lines on a dry hillside

Electric transmission lines run through a power corridor known as Path 26, near Southern California Edison’s Vincent substation north of Los Angeles. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

To be clear, I’m not personally endorsing any of those concepts, all of which have drawbacks and detractors.

Geothermal plants and offshore wind turbines are a more expensive way of generating electricity than large solar farms. Power lines can slice through sensitive ecosystems and interrupt unspoiled views; some long-duration storage projects, too, have been criticized as environmentally destructive. California’s rooftop solar incentives have thus far mostly benefited the wealthy.

As for regional cooperation, El Paso Electric last week became the latest utility to agree to join a California-led “energy imbalance market” that now covers much of the American West. But the program is relatively limited. A more comprehensive regional market has thus far been stymied by several obstacles, including mistrust between blue-state and red-state politicians.

So fitting together the puzzle pieces of 100% clean energy will be politically challenging. There are so many competing interest groups, from organized labor and ratepayer watchdogs to climate activists and renewable power companies — not to mention the oil and gas industry. No elected official wants to be blamed for putting people out of work, or causing energy prices to rise, or destroying the environment in the name of protecting the environment.

But if I’ve learned anything over the last seven years, it’s that achieving California’s climate goals will require doing things that seem politically impossible today.

Maybe that means finding a way to build lots more solar farms despite the hard-fought land-use conflicts. Maybe it means rewiring the electric grid to give rooftop solar a leading role, or pioneering some nascent technology like renewable hydrogen or carbon capture, or investing in offshore wind, or importing out-of-state wind energy from Wyoming. Or maybe all of the above.

State officials are trying to figure out the best strategies. The California Energy Commission, the Public Utilities Commission and the Air Resources Board released a draft report in December examining the options for reaching 100% clean energy.

I’ll have more to say when the report is finalized. But I spoke this week with Karen Douglas, who has served on the Energy Commission since 2008. She said officials are working to identify where solar farms can most easily be built and to lay the groundwork for offshore wind by resolving conflicts with the military. She pointed to her agency’s “Lithium Valley” initiative to spur the development of geothermal power plants near the Salton Sea that could also produce large quantities of lithium.

“We do have some breathing room, and some time and opportunity to take a step back and work with stakeholders — and also frankly with local governments up and down the state — on how to realize some of the renewable energy potential that we have in California,” Douglas said.

Plumes rise from smokestacks at a geothermal plant in the desert

Mud pots bubble outside EnergySource’s John L. Featherstone geothermal plant, in California’s Imperial County, near the southern end of the Salton Sea. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

State lawmakers have their own ideas for accelerating the push toward 100% clean energy.

Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco), for instance, is unveiling legislation today that would require state officials to develop a plan for getting at least 3,000 megawatts of offshore wind built by 2030, and 10,000 megawatts by 2040. The bill is co-sponsored by the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California — a politically powerful labor group that has opposed efforts to restrict oil and gas production but which sees offshore wind as a source of high-paying jobs.

“California has aggressive clean goals. But without a diverse set of clean energy sources, we’re not going to meet those goals,” Chiu told me. “The most important thing is that we start now. We don’t have time to wait.”

There are no silver bullets. Which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising, given the scope and scale of the climate crisis.

But if California’s leaders actually want to achieve 100% clean energy — and if they want the rest of the country to feel confident following suit — they’re going to have to make some hard choices. That much is inevitable.